KABUL, Afghanistan — Royal Marines have begun a search-and-destroy mission to clear Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from mountainous terrain in eastern Afghanistan, the first major combat operation of the conflict by British land forces.
Details on the operation, which began several days ago, were sketchy Tuesday. No information was released on the exact location, how many soldiers were participating or whether there was any fighting.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers have already been searching for Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in the area.
Eastern Afghanistan is one of the least stable regions of the country. The Taliban still has significant support in the area, and the porous border enables terrorists to seek refuge in neighboring Pakistan.
The effort to clear the remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from the east comes as Afghanistan prepares for the return of the nation's deposed king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, possibly as early as Thursday. The former monarch had been expected to come home from exile in Italy last month, but the trip was delayed because of security concerns.
Interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai flew to Rome on Monday to escort the 87-year-old former king home.
Zaher Shah is returning not as ruler but as a private citizen. Aside from standing as a symbol of national unity, he is to convene a loya jirga, or grand council, in June to select Afghanistan's next leader and government.
Kabul, the Afghan capital, remains relatively stable. However, there has been a string of security threats in recent days, including several attacks on international security forces and an assassination attempt on Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim last week in the city of Jalalabad.
In Washington, the Pentagon on Tuesday identified four U.S. soldiers killed Monday in an explosion near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The soldiers, who died when a rocket they were trying to disarm exploded, were identified as Staff Sgt. Brian Craig, 27, of Houston; Staff Sgt. Justin Galewski, 28, of Olathe, Kan.; Sgt. Jamie Maugans, 27, of Derby, Kan.; and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Romero, 30, of Longmont, Colo.
Craig, Galewski and Maugans were members of the 710th Explosive Ordnance Detachment, a 20-member company assigned to an Army facility at the Navy's submarine base in San Diego. The detachment is part of a battalion headquartered at Ft. Lewis, Wash.
"I feel very fortunate to have been with him, because he has made me such a stronger person," Galewski's wife, Christine, told reporters Tuesday outside her home in San Diego, standing beside their children, Chase, 3, and Paige, 2. "And I know I'm going to be able to take care of my kids, because I'm going to look at him and think about all the things he would have wanted for them."
The cause of the accident is under investigation, the Pentagon said. The 107-millimeter rocket was part of a cache of weapons seized in recent days by U.S. forces near Kandahar.
As for the British troops, it was unclear whether the members of the 45 Commando Royal Marines were engaging Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts in combat in eastern Afghanistan or whether they were mainly sweeping the area to eliminate possible hide-outs.
Lt. Col. Paul Harradine, a British military spokesman at a base near the town of Bagram, said the troops were deployed several days ago in an area known to have been a Taliban and Al Qaeda base.
"They're going to sweep through, destroy any Al Qaeda and Taliban that are there, and then deny the group control of that area," he said.
Some of the troops were operating in mountainous terrain more than 10,000 feet above sea level, he said. "They are above the snow line, some of them," Harradine said. "It is very rugged, very windy, snowing at night."
So far, the forces have suffered no casualties, he said.
Times staff writers Esther Schrader in Washington and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.